The (W)rites of Rob Knipe

Comic Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novelist, geek, painter, doodler, Riverside Raiders #69

Jonulsburg

Jonulsburg

Griegsday, 17th Tulosich, 1130GY

I write this, from a cell a dark, dank cell in the Hergar’s Warf guardhouse. The guards here have made me as comfortable as they can, in respect for the years of service I have given in the same role, but there is only so far comfort can go in a place such as this. I trained a few of the guard here, yet it’s only now, in the days before I am put to death, that they have allowed me to put to parchment the tale I have tried to tell them for so many long and painful days. I sit here, uncomfortably, at a gnarled wooden table, with a pile of parchment, a quill, and a small ink pot. Alone in the cell save for the constant dripping of condensation which keeps me company, and drips into a worn groove on the stone floor. My bed in the cell, sits only a few feet from this groove, so that I can hear the drip, drip, drip throughout the night, keeping me from my nightmare dreams of bramble and thorn. Instead of torrid dreams, I lie awake, my memory taking me through the horrors that came in the last days of Jonulsburg. It is these horrors, which I am going to try to give light to, in the hope that knowledge of the fate of my village, may help to save another.

Although the guard here have done their best for me, they try not to come into contact with my now cursed skin. They fear that the knots, nodes and contusions which now cover my body may affect them. Anything they have to force me to do is done at the point of a sword. I have no doubt, that the blade of the sword is bathed in fire to prevent contamination if it ever touches me. It is disappointing, knowing that I may never feel the touch of a woman again, and even more so, that for every period I spend, touching the desk and the old, worn wooden chair, my skin tries to adhere to it. Joining with it on some level I can’t fathom, with neither glue nor nails.

My tale begins, as they always do, with an ordinary event.

I was sat alone in the guardhouse. The village of Jonulsburg was small, around three hundred inhabitants at any one time, and with five guards to watch over them, it was often the case that, as guard sergeant, I would find myself alone there, idling the time away while I waited for the others to return from whichever mundane task they had been sent on.

In villages such as this, it was rare for many guards to be needed. The odd dispute between villagers, or some drunken trouble in the inn gave us our usual work, as bandits and attacks by roving orks or beasts of the forest were unheard of. We had taken this as a blessing, being so close to the Dark Forest it appeared that the ominous, unseen presences, so often reported by the lumbermen, kept any trouble at bay. The local druids, based a few miles north, would often bless the forest, and the village, and had done for centuries, praying for Madelina, to watch over us, and the itself. The goddess of nature was kind to us, and our harvests were always plentiful, the lands were rich in goodness.

After all the time living in harmony with the forest, the druids moved on, apparently heading east towards Fort Loudhail, sending word to us through a letter, rather than in person, where they would continue with their good work. We were thankful for all their efforts, and in hindsight, it may well have been their departure, and the lack of future blessings which led to the disaster that befell us.

It was only three weeks ago, when the first report was made to us, about strange occurrences where the lumbermen toiled. In the long summer days, they worked tirelessly, cutting down trees and preparing the wood for the long winters we suffered with in this part of Torbea. The reports stated, that they had become increasingly aware of movement in the periphery of their vision, and they were convinced, that paths cleared one day would be overgrown the next.

We put this down to too much time spent in the forest, after all, one section of forest generally looked like another, and with them working in different sections for different types of wood, it was only natural that they should become confused. If I’m honest, I was surprised they hadn’t reported it years before.

Naturally, the lumbermen started spending more time in the small Grykean temple, praying that whatever was afflicting the forest would leave them be. They requested that Lord Jonulsburg send an envoy to the druids who had left, requesting their blessing. The lord scoffed when asked, as we all did, and refused. The common man was remarkably superstitious, and the concerns of the lumbermen were put down to long days spent in their isolated group with nothing but the forest for company.

A few days went by, with the lumbermen becoming increasingly agitated. On the third night after the reports began, a commotion in the Truncated Oak tavern saw us called for. The tavern’s name itself, came from the legend that the greatest tree in the Dark Forest, a mighty oak, had been so strong, that many a lumberman wanted to cut it down for timber. Each was stopped just as he raised his axe or saw, claiming afterwards that they had just thought it a shame if the tree was cut. The legend goes on to tell of whispering voices, the voices of the forest itself, telling lumbermen to stop at the last minute, as to do so would incur the forests wrath.

Eventually, one such lumberman had gone in with all the gusto of his colleagues, and struck the top of the tree down with blow after blow from his woodsman’s axe. The giant truncated oak had been decapitated, and the rest of the lumbermen had felt a great sense of foreboding.

Retiring for the day, they had left the mighty oak alone, returning the next day to find the successful lumberman bound to the tree by thick brambles, which had pierced his skin and tangled his very bones, holding him tight to the bark of that once great tree. When the lumbermen had tried to free their colleague, they too had been attacked by the forest, and were struck down, bound to trees and rocks by thick brambles. Of course, there are similar legends everywhere, in the desert lands they tell tales of men pressed between the thorny tubular plants, in the dense, humid forest lands to the west, people strung up by vines.

It appeared that legends and myths such as these were playing heavy on the minds of the lumbermen. Looking at the small brown protrusion which leaves the back of my hand through a red-brown welt, I can now understand why. Anyway, I digress.

We arrived at the inn to find Hans Klein, one of the lumbermen, being restrained by several of the larger farmhands and labourers. Despite the size of the men restraining him, they seemed to struggle as Hans thrashed and contorted. With the effort of myself and guards Schult and Krebs, we shackled Hans, and with the assistance of the labourers led him to the cells in the Jonulsburg. The labourers described how Hans had sat near the fire, muttering to himself before becoming angry, and finally attacking one of the Tavern’s other patrons, the local Crier, Huepler.

As they explained, I watched Hans through the bared hatch of the thick cell door, as he fidgeted and muttered incessantly to himself. No calls or questions from myself or any other were answered. He remained hunched on the cell floor, sitting on his hands while his eyes darted this way and that. Always staring at unknown things and flinching as if avoiding something.

The next morning we discovered him naked, and dead in his cell, having beaten his own head against the stone brickwork. It was only in the morning light that we noticed his peculiar pallor. His usual weathered and tanned skin had become a sickly, olive green, with lumps and contusions covering his body. One leg was covered with a blood-stained bandage covering his thigh. Further investigation revealed a knot, much like you would find in a tree, on the inside of his thigh, and a small shoot growing vertically up the outside. The skin around them was brown and rough, and we couldn’t help but recoil, in much the same way as my current captors do from me. We left his body in the cell, and sought the priest and the physician, inviting them to bless the body, and try to explain the cause.

They were at a loss for a rational explanation, and the body was bound in thick cloth, taken away from the village, and burned. I sent my men out to round up the rest of the lumbermen, only for them to return empty-handed. Three had run, babbling, from their family homes in the dead of night, and from their descriptions, they were all suffering similar afflictions to Hans. The remaining two had not returned from the forest where they had been working the day before.

I ordered my men into their armour, chain-mail all over save for breastplates, greaves and gauntlets. Our open-face helms trailed chain-mail to cover our necks, and the usual humour and curses abounded from the cold metal touching our skin. In parts, rust spots had developed on the chain-mail, and on one breastplate, and I made a mental note to have work done on them on our return.

I will write more when I am able, clutching a quill for so long aches the joints in my hands, and my head grows weary. I only hope that I am given leave from my execution long enough to finish this tale.

 

Nautilday, 18th Tulosich, 1130 GY

Today, I find my hands more unwieldy, and you must forgive my handwriting, as it is no doubt harder to read than my usual poorly quilled scrawl. This morning, my left hand came away from the wooden bed with a piece of it firmly adhered to my palm, so that I can only use my right hand now. Even that is limited, turning it seems, into a gnarled claw, much like the old seamstress, whose wrinkled and calloused hands were near useless, forever crooked.

My body aches more today. My legs are becoming more and more difficult to bend. My skin is dry and rough, though this could be more to do with the lack of food and water than the plague which has beset me.

The food this morning was the usual swill for convicts, some watery broth with lumps of old potato and carrot in, a few chunks of fat or gristle from bad cuts of meat. It was pushed through the slot at the bottom of the cell door sloshing most of the liquid onto the floor, as the slot closed without a word. As the days go by, the guards interact with me less and less.

I can’t help notice that moss, or lichen; greenery of a kind, is spreading up the wall from my bed, and the wood of the bed itself, no longer appears as weak and old as it did. It feels that my life is fading, and yet the wood of the bed seems somewhat rejuvenated.

That night, we travelled through the village on foot, scabbarded short swords hanging from our belts, shields in hand, thick booted feet raising dust from the dry mud track. A few villagers followed us, some clutching make-shift weapons, others just watching from a safe distance. They walked on the grass at the side of the track, as though treading on the same ground as us would involve them in some way.

The forest wasn’t that far away, but by the time we reached the edges of its growth, we were sweating and uncomfortable. The men joked about it being the most exercise they’d had in ages, which led to guard Grunberg’s recent marriage and subsequent consummation of such being called into question. He should have been having plenty.

Thick brambles curled out in barbed loops from the foliage on either side of the path, and we made short work of them with our blades, advancing with purpose toward the clearings where the lumbermen worked. The clearing however, was empty of lumbermen, though the tools of their trade remained, covered in thick foliage, and wrapped in brambles, being reclaimed by the nature that surrounded them. The clearing, like the path before it, was overgrown and couldn’t have been in use recently.

We discussed the lack of lumber that would cause problems in the coming months when the wind and snows came, and the temperature dropped. It would be like decades before, when the village had been forced into the town hall when the Frost Father came, so that everyone had the opportunity to keep warm around a large central fire. The lack of lumber would be an issue, and I tasked Grunberg of taking a full inventory when we had finished in the clearing. It was something that needed to be dealt with urgently.

I had reached down and pulled at a bramble-bound woodsman’s axe, surprised at the resistance I met. I cut through the brambles, freeing up the axe enough that I could pull it clear, finding the handle unscathed, while the blade showed spots of rust and corrosion. It still had a decent edge on it. Cutting free the remaining axes and saws, we gathered them up, and made to leave the clearing.

The path was no longer noticeable, overgrown in the short time we had been there. Walking the perimeter, it was impossible to see where the path had been, and I was constantly aware that I was being watched from some unseen eyes. After circling the clearing a couple of times, it was also impossible to spot where we had cut the tools free from the brambles. The perimeter of the clearing, appeared to be moving inwards.

Unable to find the path, we called out through the woods, listening for a call from the villagers so that we might cut our way through toward the sound of their voice. Distant calls reached us, and we recognised the Crier’s voice, bellowing through the woods. With a direction set, we cut our way through. Hacking and slashing at the brambles that tripped and tangled, and snagged and strangled.

We made it out the forest, and into Jonulsburg, where we paused to collect ourselves. It was Ackermann who first mentioned it, and with every passing comment, we could all agree to some extent, that the brambles that hampered our escape appeared to be trying to stop us, with a will that shouldn’t be present in plant-life. Ackermann had been the last man out, and claimed that the brambles had reached out for us, straining to grasp us as we cut our way through their mass. I laughed at his suggestion, and pointed out that, as I had been struggling through them at the front, they would have been pulled from the plants that surrounded them. They would have shaken with my vigour, with my motion, appearing to be straining to hold us, while in reality, it was me straining to escape them.

Ackermann had reddened, Breesburger and Jaeger mocked him mercilessly, and we laughed at the notion that plants were trying to apprehend us. Despite the levity, we were somewhat shaken by the disappearing path, and the way that the overgrown clearing had closed in around us, and agreed not to mention it again until we reached the guardhouse.

The locals enquired about the missing lumbermen relentlessly, and no matter how many times we told them we didn’t know anything, they only stopped asking when we closed the door to the guardhouse, with us on one side, and them on the other. The handles on the lumbermen’s tools were fresh and new, with no signs of rot or damage, while the axe-heads and sawblades showed similar rusty mottling to the first.

With no clues as to where the lumbermen had gone, we examined the tools and waited to see if anything further happened. Grunburg took off his heavier armour, and left to make a note of the lumber supplies, and we waited in the guardhouse for something else to happen, which may shed some light on what had happened.

 

We sent a message to Lord Jonulsburg informing him of the desperate need for lumber, and he in turn sent a few of his men into the village to recruit more lumbermen. I presumed that new volunteers wouldn’t be forthcoming, and I laughed a little when I confirm now, that no one wanted the job. The lumbermen’s superstitions had been passed around the rest of the village, and the rest of the village wanted nothing to do with the forests.

After darkness fell, the village seemed to slumber quietly. Ackermann and Jaeger came back from their evening patrol, only reporting that the villagers seemed a little restless, and there were more people than usual standing in huddled groups, talking in hushed voices.

I was awoken from my slumber some time later by violent hammering on the door. the force was so much that it rattled in the frame, and it was all we could do to stop ourselves drawing our swords and advancing. The quietness after the hammering was unsettling, as we waited for something, anything, to happen.

One fist clenched and ready to strike, Breesburger opened the door, letting in a cool breeze, and Johan Maus, who stumbled inside. His round face was pale, and sweat ran from his hairline and beaded on his forehead as he told us of the screaming he had heard. His round second chin wobbled as he shook his head, as though disbelieving his own tale. The screams came from the direction of the Junger farm, which stood between Johan’s small, one-storey home and the Dark Forest. As he rotated his brown hat in his pudgy, shaking hands, his eyes flitted between us. With some uncertainty, he told us of the rustling and thrashing sounds which had come closer to his home. He likened it to the wind rushing through the forest on a stormy night, but added that there was little greenery near his home.

I sent Breesburger to wake the other guards while I opened the armoury and started to don my chainmail, strapping the metal plates over it. As I placed my helm on, I could feel the cold leather pressing on my forehead, still damp from the sweat of exertion earlier on. It was an unpleasant feeling, like placing wet footwear back on after drying and warming your feet, but, more personal.

As the rest of the guard’s prepared, I lit five torches in the fireplace, hanging them in the cast-iron rack which was fixed to the stone wall. I paced the wooden floor, Johan’s eyes not leaving me as he continued rotating his hat and muttering to himself quietly. I ordered him to take one of the axes discarded by the lumbermen, and watched as he took it unsteadily in both hands. He worked in the mill, and wasn’t as adept in the wielding of an axe, and it showed by the way he held it, constantly adjusting his hands. His few test swings would have merely bludgeoned his target with the flat of the axe-head.

Taking the torches we filtered out into the cool night, following the dry track west to Johan’s home, which stood dark and quiet. He made to open the door, but found he couldn’t push it open. He started to cry out for his wife and son, hammering on the door with his meaty fists. Grunburg and Ackermann moved around one side of the wooden house, while myself, Jaeger and Breesburger aided Johan in gaining entry to his house.

The cry came from the side of the house at almost the same time as the door caved in. I could not say for certain which happened first, as the next few moments turned our world upside down, and through a peaceful village into chaos.

As the door shattered from our repeated blows, the torchlight gave light to a sight which will forever be scarred into memory. Lenore Maus, and the boy Udo Maus, were both still in the house. They were however, suspended in the centre of the room by the thick, snaking brambles which had burst through the window at the rear of it. The brambles had been merciless, piercing them both in multiple places we could see, and from the blood which pooled on the floor beneath them, many places we couldn’t. Brambles tight around their throats had made their eyes bulge, while their swollen tongues lolled from their open mouths. In places, long, deep wounds left by the tightening plant-life wept crimson, evidence of the thorns and barbs which had been dragged across them.

I remember Johan’s trembling voice to this day as he muttered, ‘Gryke above.’

Grunburg and Ackermann moved behind us, intimating that brambles had almost engulfed the back of the building. I advanced into the one room house, holding my torch toward the thick barbed threads, sword raised to cut the victims down. As my torch neared the prickly shrub, they retreated back, freeing one side of Lenore so she half-slumped, like a puppet with half its strings cut.

I gave the order, and the guards advanced into the house, torches held out as the brambles recoiled from the flames and withdrew from the hut. Myself and Jaeger moved around the side of the wooden home, waving the torches at the brambles, which retreated, like rats scurrying for cover.

After a short time, the brambles withdrew completely, no longer just moving away from the torches, instead, they outran us, disappearing into the darkness out of the light. We decided against working our way to the Junger farm. With our torches being the only light, we could easily have been encircled, and ended up like Johan’s family.

We moved back to the house, to deal with the bodies of Lenore and Udo, and to comfort Johan. Grunberg complained of a painful scratch on his leg, and it was when we returned to the guardhouse, that we finally saw the tiniest of scratches beneath the dark hair on his calf. We laughed, breaking the tense atmosphere, and joked about him receiving a little prick. Hah.

It was a shame our laughter didn’t last as long as we would have liked.

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